Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Panda Express Lacks Berkeley's Hallmark Sustainability

By Christina Oatfield and Yonatan Landau Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Store Operations Board of the ASUC is in contract negotiations with Panda Express. They are hopeful that Panda Express will bring more foot traffic to the Lower Sproul area and generate revenue for the ASUC.

Bringing a Panda Express onto campus will create a high visibility, private branded space in the middle of our public institution. It will undermine UC Berkeley's tradition of leadership in environmental sustainability initiatives.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that the food we consume affects the world around us in more ways than we generally acknowledge. Though this may be inconvenient at times, it is dangerous and ignorant to overlook.

Panda Express is a large fast food chain that sells highly processed, Americanized Chinese food across the country. They use little to no organic ingredients. Organic food not only keeps toxins out of your own body, but it also means that the people who work in the fields and orchards where your food comes from are not sprayed with chemicals that will cause life-threatening medical problems. Panda Express's food comes from large, industrial agri-businesses that clearcut rainforests and indigenous land in the global south for the sake of setting up large monoculture fields that destroy soil and pollute rivers which people bathe in and drink from with manure and toxins.

While Panda Express claims that a fraction of their produce is from Northern California farms, most of it is still unnecessarily shipped from thousands of miles away, rather than paying workers in the US a living wage for labor. This means the burning of fossil fuels to move food around the world, which equates to lots of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Panda Express is unhealthy. Their menu items tend to be fried, high in sodium and low in fiber. Panda has not promised to accommodate vegans.

There are alternative solutions to the ASUC budget problems. For example, the ASUC Auxiliary, which is the administrative staff entity that supports the ASUC student government, operates on a budget of approximately $3 million annually. The rest of the elected officials in the ASUC only typically have a $1.5 million annual budget to share with the entire student body for putting on student programs. Members of the Auxiliary and Store Operations Board have argued that the Auxiliary needs more money to hire two staff members.

We find it alarming that the administrative staff entity is eating up two-thirds of the student government budget. The ASUC Senate just received, for the first time, a copy of this year's ASUC Auxiliary budget at its last Senate meeting. There has been little to no dialogue so far about how our total $4.5 million annual budget could possibly be restructured to solve the budget deficit. Before assuming that we need to bring a fast food chain to campus we must consider how we can more efficiently spend the money that we already have.

Proponents of Panda Express point out a few "sustainable" practices that Panda is going to implement as a way to check off the environmental sustainability question and move on. This is not enough: there are other food service providers who have proved their commitment to thinking of environmental sustainability every step of the way.

We should be in contract negotiations with entities that have a reliable track record of implementing environmentally friendly operational measures, of which Panda has none. Our generation is faced with many enormous environmental issues, including climate change, diminishing fresh water and other natural resources, erosion and subsequent loss of nutrient rich soil, synthetic chemical pollutants in our water and soil, loss of species diversity, diminishing food security and pollution.

All of these issues tie into our food systems and basic quality of life and I have faith in the UC Berkeley community to take bold actions to solve them. Bringing Panda Express onto campus will be taking a step backwards in our legacy or leadership.

Senator Yishi Zuo urged us to let the free market decide what is best for our campus and welcome Panda. But the free market is not going to fix our public health and environmental problems -- as a public institution, Berkeley has a privilege and a right to look past the short-sighted interests of economic gain. Making the free market argument is like claiming that any student who is willing to bid highest on a spot into our school should be allowed in. In order to even be accepted to this campus we all had to go through a rigorous application process in which our grades, test scores, extra curricular activities, personal statement and other qualities were scrutinized. Yet, there is no "admissions office" for the food service providers that come to Lower Sproul other than the ASUC and the student body. Let's uphold those high Berkeley admissions standards to the food we eat.

We urge you to write to your ASUC representatives and tell them about all the great ideas you have for better utilizing the student union space. We already have inexpensive Chinese food within walking distance of campus, but we don't yet have a bike kitchen, a student run food co-op, adequate practice space for performance groups, prayer/meditation space and other democratically controlled spaces on Lower Sproul. All of these things exist on other UC campuses, and we can have it at Berkeley too.

It's time.